“Morally bankrupt”? No, ‘Joker’ is a deeply moral movie about the power of kindness

It's been written off by some as nihilistic pornography, but the Batman villain's origin story conveys a powerful message

Back in 1995, The New York Times called Kids, Harmony Korine’s unflinching cinema verité-style exploration of 24 hours in the lives of disaffected teenagers, “a wake-up call to the modern world”. The New Yorker, meanwhile, wrote the film off as “nihilistic pornography”. It’s a divisive critical appraisal we’ve seen repeated around Joker, Todd Phillips’ Scorsese-inspired, ‘80s-set reimagining of the Batman villain’s origin story, with Joaquin Phoenix in the titular role, here initially known as Arthur Fleck.

Fleck is a sad sack who has taken so many beatings – both physical and figurative – from the world that, eventually, he snaps. By the end of the movie, he has transformed into the Joker, a malicious murderer who, he says, believes in nothing. The film premiered at Venice Film Festival back in September and was awarded five-star reviews pretty much across the board, even scooping the Golden Lion – the festival’s highest award – which is unheard of for a mainstream Hollywood superhero movie.

Then came the backlash.

Rumblings began on social media – discontent bubbling on ‘film Twitter’ – and mainstream publications soon followed suit. The Guardian, which had awarded the movie five stars in Venice, followed-up with a two-star review that decried Todd Phillips’ vision as “shallow”. The New Yorker went further, claiming “‘Joker’ is an intensely racialised movie” (at one point Arthur is attacked by some young people of colour) but declines to examine that subtext in favour of a “numbing emptiness”. It seems the underlying charge is that Joker is “dangerous, irresponsible and morally bankrupt”.

On the contrary, this is a deeply moral movie about the power of kindness. Much has been made of the film’s depiction of fat cats screwing over the little guy in a Gotham besieged by garbage strikes and lacerating Government cuts. That’s a large part of Phillips’ message. Yet there’s not just top-down viciousness – Joker is an allegory about what happens in a society where cruelty reigns and empathy is absent.

First let’s look at the fat cats. We meet Thomas Wayne, father to a very young Bruce Wayne, many years before the latter becomes Batman. He’s filthy rich and, in his bid to become the Mayor of Gotham, calls the seething underclass “clowns”, a slur that contributes to the violence that follows. Far from a kindly, benevolent philanthropist, the Thomas Wayne of Joker is a mean, selfish bully. Arthur’s mother, Penny, claims she had an affair with him many years ago. Arthur, she says, is their son. Authorities insist that, mentally ill, Penny fantasised the whole thing and that Arthur was adopted.

She counters that Thomas Wayne, the most powerful man in Gotham, had the adoption papers forged. The truth is left ambiguous (again the hospital staff blame Penny’s illness) though in one scene Arthur turns over a black-and white photograph of his mum. It’s scrawled with the caption, “I love your smile”. The viewer – and this is deliberate –  can’t quite make out the initials with which it is signed, though it seems they might read “T.W.” Arthur challenges Thomas, only to be attacked and dismissed.

In another scene, we see Arthur interact with Bruce through the gates of the sprawling Wayne mansion. They’re united in the mise en scene, Arthur’s tan jacket matching the colour of Bruce’s sweater. This much is unambiguous: Arthur Fleck and Bruce Wayne – Joker and Batman – are two sides of the same coin. One, though, has been showered with love, money and privilege; the other has gone without.

Gotham is ravaged by austerity and inequality. It’s the reason that Arthur’s seven types of mental health medication, plus his cognitive therapy, are withdrawn. That New Yorker piece appeared to imply that Joker is a racist movie because Arthur is attacked by a group of people of colour and a woman of colour is cruel to him on a bus, but the point is actually that the city’s systemic inequality forces black people to live, like Arthur, in its poorest areas. Thwarted and frustrated, the poorest inhabitants – of all colours – turn on each other. A white co-worker, for instance, refers to Arthur’s attackers as “animals”.

Joker

Clown Prince of Crime: Joaquin Phoenix in full costume as the Joker. Credit: Warner Bros.

It’s amazing that a film critic for The New Yorker would be unable to tell the difference between a racist movie and one that depicts racism.

Arthur reveres talk show comedian Murray Franklin, a nod to the 1983 Scorsese classic The King of Comedy. Yet even Murray is cruel to Arthur, broadcasting, on national television, secretly filmed footage of Arthur bombing at a comedy club, using the amateur’s ineptitude to highlight his own talent. We all know people who have surreptitiously filmed or taken iPhone snaps of strangers in public and mocked them on social media. When we dehumanise people in such a way, Phillips is saying, it’s a race to the bottom.

When he finally meets Murray Franklin in person, Arthur asks if he knows what it’s like out on Gotham’s streets, how cruel people are to one another on a day-to-day basis; this is the heart of Joker. We are all at fault. Take the scene in which Arthur’s workmate, who is of restricted growth, can’t reach the lock to open a door and escape a grisly murder scene. When I saw the movie, the audience laughed.

There’s been a great deal of controversy around that fact that, once he’s transformed into Joker, Arthur dances in the street to convicted paedophile Gary Glitter’s ‘Rock & Roll Part 2’. While the track doesn’t have the same connotations in the States – until recently, sports teams regularly walked out to the former pop star’s tunes – it’s still a bold move. If you think it seems gratuitous, or just juvenile button-pushing, consider the role that the scene plays in the narrative, sign-posting that society has reached the point of no return, where there’s no right and wrong and all bets are off. By now, Arthur’s been pushed so far that we’re almost on his side.

It’s a haunting, indelible scene, intoxicating and repugnant all at once – and part of the message behind this powerful, important film. The critical backlash, combined with its record-breaking box office numbers, is almost like performance art: the so-called ‘experts’ telling the masses that they don’t know what’s good for them.

You can dismiss Joker as “nihilistic pornography” (plenty have) but, like the divisive Kids 24 years before it, this is a compelling wake-up call that implores us to be kind to one another day-to-day.

Joker is in cinemas now